Sunday, October 26, 2008

Visiting the Copts - Part III

Habib poured me a big, black cup of coffee.

"It's not cappuchino," he admitted, "For that you have to come to my place."

Besides the coffee, there was cake and pastry - and big, big trays piled up high with hamburgers and hot dogs in buns. It made sense. In reading up on Coptic traditions beforehand, I learned that they strictly fast before eucharist. Many other Christians do this as well - but their services are three hours shorter.

The other men came in shortly afterwards. I sat down with the cafe owner, a young physician, an FBI translator of Arabic and a professor of finance. They all insisted that I eat something with my coffee, so I got a small piece of nutcake.

Everyone was very interested in the book. I explained that it was not a history, but a historical fiction.

"I know there are a million ways it could have happened," I said, "I just want to write down the most interesting one that's possible."

So I asked the men at the table what they knew about the theft of Saint Mark: what stories and legends had been passed down in their culture? What could possible have persuaded Coptic Priests to give up the body of their first pope?

No one had a good idea of it. I did find that for these modern Copts, thoughts of that time are heavily colored by the history of the Islamic conquest, and the recent history of radicalism in Egypt which many beleive the government turns a blind eye to. (I'm not touching that one.)

They did agree on one thing. "A lot of people say the priests were bribed," the translator said, "There's no way they would take money for a thing like that."

"I agree with you," I told him, "The way I wrote it, they were offered money and refused."

Everyone liked that. By now, Father Demetrios had sat down with us. All the men kissed the cross in his hand, and he blessed them. I shook his hand and introduced myself. He said Habib had told him all about me.

"Why don't you eat something?" he asked me.

"I'm sorry, I just didn't fast like all of you," I admitted, "I've had breakfast."

"Ha! At least he confesses it!" the professor said. I got the impression that breakfasting was often done, but rarely admitted.

By now I could see that the how and why of the theft wasn't something they thought about much. It had just happened to them, the same way foreigners had invaded and ruled their country since the time of the Greeks... and the Romans... and the Byzantines... and the Caliphate... Ottomans... Napoleon... the British...

"Let me tell you how I wrote it," I said, "And you can tell me if it sounds all right."

I told the story of Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello entering Saint Mark's church: what they said to the priests, what was happening in the city outside the church, the body leaving the church and what happened after that. (If you weren't in that room, then you'll have to wait until I finish the book, and you buy it, to hear the rest.)

A long silence.

"That's it," the translator said, "That's exactly the way it must have happened."

I left with a good list of contacts in my notebook, as several of my new friends offered to help with translations or future research. Also Father Demetrios took me up to his study and let me copy some pages (in English, thankfully) from a book he had. I also left with a very touching story.

"I would like to make a comment," the physician's elderly father said, "I was there in the Cairo airport when the Pope brought Saint Mark's Body to us from Rome."

I had heard of this. The Roman Pope, Paul gave to the Coptic Pope Cyril with his own hands relics of Saint Mark. The old man told me all this with a misty eye, how he was there and saw it himself, and how the Copts rejoiced to have their saint back home after 1,140 years. I could tell that the image was still vivid in his mind, a rare moment of joy and victory for his people in a long history of increasing marginalization.

There was more. His son, the physician told me that there was not enough money to build a proper cathedral to house the relics, but that Nasser's government came through with the funds. That made Saint Mark a symbol of Egypt, and acknowledged the Coptic religion as integral to Egyptian nationalism - even if the nation itself was Muslim. I didn't know about that part. I found it very touching.

After this visit I feel like I have the last piece of the puzzle. The edits are coming along - the story as I've written it seems to be a good one - and from the contacts I made there, (and now here in this blog- thanks Ray!) I'm confident that I can give the parts of the tale that happen in old Alexandria the right feel.


  1. You are welcome :)
    Actually there is a book called "The History of the Coptic Church" by Manassa Youhanna. It is in Arabic and I don't think there is an English translation for it. I read it a long time ago and I remember that there is a detailed account of the incident of stealing St. Mark's body. I did a little research and found a copy online. The story begins at this page (sorry it is in Arabic)

    The interesting part in the story is that the body of St. Mark was in the Greek Church (Melkite, i.e the Church that follows Constantinople). While the head was in the Coptic Church (the national Church). So technically the body was stolen from the Greeks not the Egyptians LOL. The story though finds good excuses for the Greeks. In the years before that incident, the Muslim Caliph robed the Churches of Alexandria from its granite pillars to decorate his own palace. The book says that the Veniccians bribed the Greek guards, and convinced them that it is better for the body of St. Mark to be kept in a Christian country better than being humiliated on the hands of Muslim mob and the guards agreed. The manage to smuggle the box carrying the body from the Muslim port guards by putting pork meat on it as they knew the Muslim guards won't touch it because of that.
    Hope that helps :)
    email me at if you wanna chat more.

  2. Wow - that's great, thanks Ray! I had heard of the Melkites, but had no idea they were involved. I have an Egyptian Muslim friend who I am sure will read the Arabic to me.

    Unfortunately I may have to use my "author's license" and keep the body with the head in the Egyptian church. It might be too complicated to bring in the Melkites, since I already have Constantinople and Rome involved in the plot to take the body.

    I did know that the head was never taken by the Venetians, and in my story they leave it behind for a very good reason. Also I changed the part about the relics being hidden under pork. There's that author's license again - but I do tell the story in a way that explains why that legend arises. Finally, the reason the guards let the body go - I did not like the idea of them being bribed. I think you will like that they are not bribed in my story, since after all they are Copts in my version, and not Greeks! And the the threat of the Caliph's forces raiding the church is part of the reason, but I add some more factors.

    Again, thanks for your interest and help Ray. I hope you won't mind the parts of history I will change, and that you enjoy the story when it comes out.

  3. Cool, looking forward to read it :)